The press joins the Drug Enforcement Administration's public-relations campaign.

Media criticism.
Sept. 24 2010 5:37 PM

Bogus Drug Coverage of the Week

The press joins the Drug Enforcement Administration's public-relations campaign.

Drug day advertisement. Click image to expand.
Advertisement for "National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day."

When the subject turns to drugs, even the most skeptical reporters go all wobbly. This week, the instability was caused by a public-relations event staged by the Drug Enforcement Administration called the "National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day." Allied with medical boards, police chiefs, district attorneys, boards of pharmacy, and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the DEA has helped establish more than 4,000 drop spots for people to discard their unused and unwanted prescription drugs tomorrow, Sept. 25, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The Associated Pressdidn't pause to ask if the organized disposal of stray meds will change drug-use patterns in any significant way. Neither did the Washington Post, the Cincinnati Enquirer, Newsday, the Seattle Times, the Orlando Sentinel, the Bangor Daily News, the Columbus Dispatch, and other papers, including the many that ran the AP story.

Only one daily in my survey displayed the remotest skepticism about the event's usefulness—the New York Times ("A Wave of Addiction and Crime, with the Medicine Cabinet to Blame," Sept. 24). The Times cites unnamed skeptics who say that gun buybacks haven't reduced the gun-crime rate, so why should a "take-back" day for meds reduce drug use, especially seeing as drug take-back day, unlike gun-buyback days, isn't offering a cash reward for surrendering contraband?

The Times deserves additional commendation for stating this obvious point: People hoard their pain and anxiety meds for the simple reason that they may need them later. (Raise your hand if you've got some codeine or Vicodin in your emergency stash.) Also, the Times bests its competitors by reporting that the organizers confess that one day of drug drop-off spots will harvest "but a tiny fraction of the addictive drugs lining the nation's medicine cabinets," that the event will do nothing about the "over-prescribing of powerful drugs," and the stunt will at best raise "awareness."

So take a bow, New York Times. You didn't completely blow the assignment.

Now, sit down and take the special batch of medicine I've brewed for you.

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The Times reports uncritically the claims of "officials" that opiate painkiller and other prescription drugs "are driving addiction and crime like never before." No crime statistics to support the assertion are offered. Instead, the Times treats readers to two accounts of home invasion, the first in Harpswell, Maine, and the second in Hyannis, Mass., and reports the observation made by a DEA assistant special agent in Boston that pill thieves now routinely pillage medicine cabinets during real-estate open houses. Do two anecdotes and a modus operandi constitute an unprecedented crime spree? No. And if open houses are turning into drug bazaars, why don't real-estate agents get a clue and tell their clients to de-drug their bathrooms before they show their homes? I sense an urban myth here.

Nobody who has gleaned recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports contests that deaths involving prescription opioid drugs have been on the rise since 1999. It's a fact. But the Times article inexplicably adds nonprescription drugs into its mortality analysis in the sentence that reads: "In 17 states, death from drugs—both prescription and illegal—now exceed those from motor vehicle accidents, with opiate painkillers paying a leading role." If the story is about dangerous meds in the bathroom, it makes no journalistic sense to offer mortality statistics that mix both legal meds and strictly illegal drugs. Bad New York Times!

The Times' observation about death rates also ignores the vital fact that, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports, motor vehicle deaths have been dropping precipitously since 2005. In 2007, 41,259 people died in traffic crashes. In 2008, 37,423 died. In 2009 (PDF), just 33,808 died. That drug deaths now exceed crash deaths in 17 states may have a lot more to do with declining numbers of crashes than increasing numbers of drug deaths. I'd love to know the names of the 17 states and read the underlying data.

One reliable marker of a public-relations blitz is the appearance of the same victim in two competing stories. Both the AP and the Times chronicle the sad death of 18-year-old Tim Strain, who they report was not a drug abuser. I doubt very much if the two news organization found his parents independently. Did the DEA or one of the sponsors of the "take-back" day introduce his parents to the press?

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